Treat plastic pollution like climate change, scientists say

Plastic is one of the most widely used man-made substances in the world. Amid growing concern about plastic pollution in our seas, scientists are calling for an international agreement to help us cut back.

Ecologist Chelsea Rochman spends more time than most thinking about plastic. As one of Canada’s leading scientists studying aquatic plastic pollution, she’s found it in the guts of fish from markets in Indonesia and the United States. She’s seen it in the middle of the Pacific where, she said, thousands of pieces of floating small plastic looked like someone had sprinkled confetti over the ocean. Now, Rochman runs a lab at the University of Toronto that is investigating pressing questions related to plastic pollution, ranging from its impact on the Arctic to the effect of microplastics on fish in the Great Lakes.  

The variety of plastic pollution seen by Rochman, along with other scientists based in Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Norway, brought them to a shared conclusion. They say we need to think of solutions to plastic pollution in a similar way to how we think about climate change. They are among a growing number of scientists and environmental experts calling for stronger international cooperation to reduce and tackle plastic waste in the environment.

“We need some type of international agreement similar to the Paris Agreement [on climate change] where we have a defined target for each country for how much we’re going to reduce plastic emissions,” said Rochman, who has broached the idea in a letter to Environment Minister Catherine McKenna and plans to talk to her in more detail in the coming month. Rochman told The Discourse: “Especially with the longest coastline in the world and being on three oceans, we could really lead in this space.”


What is the Paris Agreement?

  • A global accord starting in 2020 that aims to hold the increase in global average temperature “well below 2℃” and help countries mitigate climate change. It includes the creation of a $100-billion-a-year fund by wealthy countries to help poor ones with climate adaptation.  
  • Adopted in December 2015 by 196 member countries of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
  • Though hailed as historic by some environmentalists and world leaders when it was negotiated, climate experts said it is far too weak to prevent climate change. Critics are concerned about the voluntary nature of the pledges, in which each country can set its own target for reducing carbon emissions as long as it goes beyond previous targets. The International Energy Agency says it’s unlikely the agreement will even meet its own goals.


Transnational plastics

Plastic surrounds us. It’s used in a multitude of products including packaging, building materials, cars, phones and clothes. In 1950, plastic production began following a similar trajectory to that of carbon emissions, according to an analysis by Rochman and other scientists. By 2017, the world had produced 8,300 million metric tons of virgin plastic, of which about 30 per cent is still in use, according to the first global estimate. By 2015, 60 per cent had ended up in a landfill or the environment, including the ocean, where plastic is on track to outweigh fish by 2050, according to an analysis by the World Economic Forum and the Ellen McArthur Foundation.

Lilly Woodbury of Surfrider Pacific Rim lifts up a large piece of styrofoam that washed onto Bartlett Island, a remote island accessible only by boat near Tofino, B.C.

Jennifer Provencher, a researcher at Acadia University, co-authored a paper on the issue with Rochman. Provencher told The Discourse: “Like climate change, plastic is transnational. It often exists in international waters, so beyond a single nation’s jurisdiction. It often doesn’t land necessarily on the shore where it’s from. And it’s not uniform in terms of how it affects countries.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Minister McKenna have pledged to make ocean plastic pollution a priority in the coming year as it holds the G7 presidency, including with a “zero waste plastics charter.” But they have not made any statements about whether Canada might push for launching the process to create a treaty.

“Canada’s proposed G7 approach builds on [existing international initiatives] and goes a step further by specifically focusing on plastics, taking a life-cycle approach to address the root causes of plastic waste, integrating more specific commitments and timelines for action, and catalyzing investments for waste management infrastructure, research and innovation and cleanups,” said environment ministry spokesperson Marilyne Lavoie in an email.

Plastic debris from the Pacific Ocean washes up on to the shores of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Minister McKenna’s staff declined a request for an interview by the deadline. But when speaking in Vancouver in March, McKenna said: “I’m very excited this year that Canada is going to be hosting the G7 — some of the largest economies in the world, and one of our focuses is going to be on ocean health. We know that part of that is stopping plastic, plastic waste in particular, from getting into our oceans.”

The government is looking into working with companies to improve recycling and reuse of plastic, as well as helping developing countries improve their waste management systems so less plastic ends up in the ocean, the environment minister added.  

To truly have an impact, some policy analysts and scientists say Canada must look to advance binding policies and laws. Voluntary agreements have proliferated since 1995, when more than 100 countries pledged to reduce marine debris, but more and more plastic has continued to flow into the ocean, noted Linda Nowlan, a lawyer at West Coast Environmental Law, in a recent editorial.

‘Silent Spring’

Canada’s shores are vulnerable to plastic pollution from all over the world. Beachcombers on B.C.’s coast say it’s common to find debris from Asia on local beaches. Their observations are borne out by the data. Five countries in Asia account for half of the plastic that ends up in the ocean each year, according to a study for the Ocean Conservancy by McKinsey and Company. At a more local level, the Friends of McNabs Island Society, which has been running a beach cleanup in Halifax since the early 1990s, told The Discourse they have found debris from Europe on their shores.  

Like climate change, plastics, which contain and attract toxins, could have catastrophic consequences for the planet. In 2015, Boris Worm, a biologist at Dalhousie University, warned of a “silent spring in the ocean” after reviewing research that found 90 per cent of seabirds worldwide have plastic in their stomachs. The situation reminded him of Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which highlighted how pesticides were killing birds and could ultimately lead to a spring without birdsong. Like the pesticides Carson wrote about, plastic was originally seen as harmless and accumulates in the environment without breaking down, Worm explained to The Discourse.

The graph above illustrates what happened to all plastic waste generated from 1950 through to 2015 (solid lines), and what would happen if current trends continued to 2050 (dashed lines).

He said a global framework, such as a convention, is needed to redefine plastic as a persistent pollutant. Currently, plastics are classified as solid waste. That “implies there’s not much harm from them,” said Worm. “It’s the same as construction debris or agricultural waste, but we know that it has a lot more risks associated with it.”

Jennifer Provencher said an international agreement like the one in place for climate change would also “give countries a mechanism and way to work together” to decrease “plastic emissions.” She suggested a treaty would work towards reducing global plastic waste to zero with national targets for each country.

Calls for better waste management

Representatives of the plastics industry aren’t so sure an international agreement should be a priority. “It can take 10 or 15 years to negotiate the treaty before you even take a first step,” said Steve Russell, vice president of the American Chemistry Council’s plastics department. “Then, you get the U.S. and China that pull out of them or don’t enter,” he told The Discourse.


Key international efforts on plastic pollution


Instead, supporting efforts by corporations to improve recycling and produce more recyclable plastics, such as the Trash Free Seas Alliance, which includes pledges from global companies like Nestle and PepsiCo, is more efficient, Russell said. “If it’s most important to make a dramatic difference as quickly as we can, especially given rising population and access to consumer goods, then we really need to go after the places we can get the biggest bang the fastest.”

“In the economies where the most waste is going into the ocean, we need to implement better waste management infrastructure,” he added, noting that countries like Canada could help developing countries build better waste management and recycling systems.  

But, according to Provencher, it doesn’t make sense to hold back on a treaty, which would create institutional change at the government level that wouldn’t arise from efforts by industry. “Plastics is a complex problem. It is not about one solution or another,” she said.

Countries could also draw on their experience from negotiating climate change policy to speed up the process of creating a treaty for plastic pollution, Provencher added. She suggested policymakers consider how strategies like a cap-and-trade system or carbon pricing could be used to cut back on plastic. Wealthy countries could also create a fund to help poor countries with waste management just as they have for climate adaptation, she said.

“That would be well beyond things that industry is going to do.”[end]

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This piece was edited by Rachel Nixon, Discourse Media’s executive editor, with fact-checking and copy editing by Jonathan von Ofenheim.


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